There are troubles and concerns, certainly, but on the whole Australians have reason to regard the year just begun with a measure of guarded optimism and confidence. Mostly that is because our blessed country is far removed, at least for the moment, from the terrible triumvirate of insanity, turmoil and idiocy that reigns over the rest of the planet.
Even so, the year started with a bang, literally, when North Korea exploded what it claims was a hydrogen bomb. While Pyongyang’s psychopaths strut and posture, the rest of us might want to turn our attention from beach and barbecues, at least for a moment or two, to wonder where it all might lead. North Koreans can deliver their latest bombs whenever the whim strikes them, thanks to the Soviet rocket technology that is ready to be placed underneath fresh batches of warheads. The fact that North Korea’s missiles are old fashioned, primitive by contemporary standards, is small consolation. Sure, they lack the range and accuracy to hit Sydney or New York, but they can make Tokyo or Seoul without too much of a problem.
Now cast your mind back to how it all started, how five nations — America, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea — set out to entice the North Koreans into behaving themselves, the bribe being food in return for a pledge to stop developing nukes. This farce dragged on for more than a decade, with North Korea telling shameless lies while continuing its infernal programme while insisting that its interest in matters nuclear had nothing whatsoever to do with weaponry. No, those reactors and research facilities were strictly for peaceful purposes! Everyone knew there wasn’t a grain truth in the charade, but our leaders chose to go along with it. That way they could wave pieces of paper and declare peace in our time, leaving it the next generation of leaders to cope with Pyongyang’s bluster. And isn’t that what politics — as opposed to security — is all about? Kicking the can down the road, making it the next bloke’s problem.
Does that doomed and dishonest process of remind you of anything? It does me — several things, in fact. Time and time again the Soviets behaved in exactly the same manner, signing arms agreements which they broke behind closed doors, immediately the ink was dry and without compunction. Insist on verification? That would have been an affront to sovereignty and precious national dignity, so hollow words were accepted as genuine in the tacit knowledge they were anything but.
That’s the past, but my thoughts also turn to the future — a time soon to be upon us when Iran has the bomb it swears, with fingers crossed, it doesn’t really want. We know Tehran’s mullahs are lying, just as North Korea and the Soviets were lying, but we persist in clinging to the necessary fiction that they can be trusted.
We know, too, that Obama is a child in president’s clothing, that no one so shallow and self-worshipping could ever negotiate a proper deal with the hard men of Iran. But, as so often before, it suits our purposes to pretend that there is some merit, some hope of promises being honoured, when Obama looks the TelePrompter in the eye and swears, as so many have done before, that there is substance and worth in the pact he brought home to Washington. There isn’t, not a jot. The only distinction between Clinton’s accord with Pyongyang and Obama’s with Tehran is that the North Koreans started earlier than the Iranians. With treaty in hand, sanctions lifted and nothing that resembles a worthwhile inspection agreement, we can fully expect them to continue making up for lost time.
While I can understand the incentive to proclaim a faux deal as a real one, what I cannot get my mind around is the delusional irresponsibility of various American governments. Be it Clinton or Obama, did it concern neither man that he was shedding the most basic responsibility of any leader, his nation’s self preservation? Stalin fell prey to the same short-term temptation when he endorsed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact; so did Chamberlain at Munich.They knew well and good that they were urinating into the wind, all the while understanding the consequences. Yet still they kidded their audiences that a postponed crisis is every bit as good as a resolved one.
After the recent North Korean nuclear test some countries voiced suspicions that the explosion was produced by something other than a hydrogen bomb. Fair enough. It might or might not have been a hydrogen bomb. This uncertainty, though, represents a danger in and of itself, as it could lead to a conflict in its own right, perhaps even a nuclear one. Again, turn to the past, but think this time of Saddam Hussein, who also sought refuge in fostering illusions. He was a mass-murdering war criminal who butchered countless numbers of his own citizens, using poison gas among other things. Saddam was responsible for the war against Iran, which left almost a million dead. He also invaded a sovereign nation, Kuwait, and was invaded in return, but allowed to stay in power after that initial conflict, the first Gulf War. Only when he quite deliberately created the illusion that his country was plentifully supplied with well-hidden weapons of mass destruction did a second war begin, this time dedicated to the proposition that he simply had to be removed from power once and for all. Saddam’s prestidigitation ended at the end of a rope. One wonders if, as the trapdoor dropped open, his last thought might have been a sincere appreciation that bluffing the world about his purported arsenal had not been a terribly good idea.
Today, North Korea’s commissars could well be making the same mistake. Their impoverished, dysfunctional and irrational regime, which throws tantrums in a bid to project strength, has no industry to speak of, few natural resources to be relied upon, no allies and a pauperised , semi-starved, terrorised population isolated from the rest of the world. It simply cannot be a match for a contemporary army.
North Korea’s need to demonstrate how tough and dangerous it is stems from its leaders’ clear understanding of their own criminality, their fear of losing power and the gallows they know is waiting if their control of the country and its society is ever wrested from their hands. This fear drives eccentric and irrational behaviour, the essence of which could be expressed as “Don’t touch me, I am crazy! I am capable of anything!”
The reality is that North Kore’s despots are rational and clearheaded in pursuing what amounts to a flawed strategy. Indeed, in their desperate drive to stay in power, they may well have aped Saddam’s fatal blunder by presenting themselves to the world as much stronger than is actually the case. They can be reasonably confident that the weakling Obama will do nothing, but can they be sure the next president will be so spineless? In breaking promises and thumbing their noses at the nations which thought, or pretended to think they had obtained an agreement, they mistook the peaceful nature Western democracies for weakness. Have you noticed that all dictators seem to make the same mistake?
And now, for all their boasting and crowing, North Korea’s leaders might have just convinced the West that they have become too dangerous to ignore. In my imagination I hear the sound of saws and hammers. It is the noise of the gallows being erected. At least I sincerely hope that is what I can hear.